Cover image for Islam explained
Islam explained
Ben Jelloun, Tahar, 1944-
Personal Author:
Uniform Title:
Islam expliqué aux enfants. English
Publication Information:
New York : New Press, [2002]

Physical Description:
120 pages ; 20 cm
General Note:
Includes index.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
BP163 .B3413 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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In Racism Explained, novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun offered a powerful model for teaching difficult subjects to our children. In lucid and accessible prose, he now clarifies the main tenets of Islam, the major landmarks in Islamic history and the modern politics of Islamic fundamentalism. He also sheds light on the key words that have come to dominate coverage of the modern crisis - terrorist, crusade, jihad, fundamentalist, fatwa - offering balanced explanations for the general reader, young and old. The book is both and introduction to one of the great religions and a cry for tolerance in deeply troubled times.

Author Notes

Controversial winner of the prestigious French Prix Goncourt (1987), Tahar Ben Jelloun is a Moroccan writer who has not found much favor at home, despite his growing popularity abroad. According to some North African critics, Ben Jelloun intentionally sets out to please foreign readers. The critics contend that his writing reinforces European stereotypes by pandering to western tastes for quaint folklore and traditions, and exotic scenery. Moroccan critics have accused Ben Jelloun of creating artificial, fabricated stories that fail to convey a true picture of Morocco. They have also been offended by his criticism of Morocco, and the fact that he reveals sides of Moroccan life that are usually kept hidden. Ben Jelloun's story of a girl dressed as a boy, L'Enfant du Sable (The Sand Child) (1985), was scandalous in their eyes.

After Ben Jelloun won the Prix Goncourt, a number of critics changed their minds and have begun to praise his work.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Cast in the form of an extended conversation between Ben Jelloun and his young daughter, this small book tackles mighty subjects. Father and child discuss the history of Islam, what it means to be a Muslim today, the challenges facing the Islamic world, and terrorism. Ben Jelloun boils with fury and sadness as he explains the failure of Islamic regimes to adapt the teachings of Islam to the modern world. He also argues passionately that terrorism in general and suicide bombings in particular are forbidden by the Qur'an and that Islam is no more inherently violent than any other religious worldview. Although this book presents only one of many "explanations" of Islam, its openness and emotional honesty, particularly when discussing the tragedy of 9/11, make it a valuable addition to a growing public discourse. As an introduction to the religion, it is spotty, but as a liberal Muslim voice of reconciliation, heartbreak, and compassion, it is priceless. --John Green

Publisher's Weekly Review

From the author of Racism Explained to My Daughter comes this slender but ambitious treatise designed to make sense of Islam to young Western readers in the wake of September 11. Jelloun organized his book in a simple question-and-answer format, imagining the questions to come from his own children. The format and largely simple language makes it a quick read and easily digestible. Jelloun tells the tale of Muhammad and the origins of Islam, then dwells largely on Islam's Golden Age by emphasizing its openness to the knowledge of other cultures and by enumerating some of its own contributions to world science and philosophy. Jelloun tries not to whitewash Islamic history by mentioning the violent wars that characterized its expansion, but in doing so he raises more questions than he answers. He explains terrorists as "bad men" who are "not real Muslims." He also defines a range of terms from "humility" and "decadence" to "martyr" and "jihad," but often uses fairly sophisticated vocabulary in his explanations (which could be a translation issue from the original French: Jelloun is a Moroccan-born Muslim transplanted to France). For this reason, the book would work better for adult readers looking for simple ways to answer their children's questions. Although billed as being of interest to the general reader, it will certainly be frustrating to those who want more than a superficial overview of Islam. This book only whets the appetite. (Oct. 10) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



September 11 Explained to Children My children have not been spared images of the American tragedy of September 11, 2001. The remarks they've heard here and there regarding the terrorists and their belonging to the Arab and Muslim world have worried them. Thus, one of my children (not quite ten) asked me this questions: Daddy, am I a Muslim? Yes, like your parents. And am I an Arab too? Yes, you're an Arab even if you don't speak Arabic. But you saw on TV, the Muslims are bad, they killed a lot of people, I don't want to be a Muslim. What are you going to do about it? Starting now I won't turn down pork at the school cafeteria. If you want, but before giving up being Muslim, I should tell you that the bad men you are talking about are not real Muslims, and there are bad men everywhere. But people say these men are Arabs.... You must not lump all Arabs together. Not all Arabs are Muslims. There are Christian Arabs in Lebanon, Egypt, Palestine, Sudan.... I saw an old man with a beard who prays like Granddad and then he takes a gun and fires at pictures. Is he a Muslim? If he prays like Granddad, yes. Why are these people not real Muslims? Allah, like the god of the Jews and the Christians, forbids killing yourself, which we call suicide. And He forbids killing other people. So those men who got on airplanes, who killed the pilots with a knife, and then flew the planes into the skyscrapers in New York-those men don't understand the Muslim religion, and they are fanatics. What's a fanatic? It's somebody who thinks he's always right and wants to be the most powerful. If you don't agree with him, he becomes very wicked. America didn't agree with them and that's why they ran the airplane into the skyscraper? Yes, no one can accept what they did. What they did was horrible. What did America do to them that they were so cruel? America, or more exactly the American government, has made many mistakes and been very unfair. They have been bombing the Iraqi people for ten years. Many Iraqi children have died in these bombings. In 1991 the Iraqi army invaded its neighbor Kuwait. America and other countries stepped in and forced the Iraqi army out. Then Iraq was punished by the United Nations. But actually it was the people who were punished, not their leader. It's complicated, you see. It's not as simple as you think, especially because America is a very powerful nation and must take care to be fair. But despite all of that, nothing can justify those mass killings. But was it Iraqis who attacked America? No, it was people who say they are Arabs and Muslims. For me, they are crazy people. But why are they crazy? Those people were taught when they were kids and attended Koranic school that Allah wanted them to kill the enemies of Islam and then Allah would reward them by sending them to heaven. I don't get it. You have to kill to go to heaven? Absolutely not! But they were told to believe that. And they believed it? Tell me how they were made to believe it. Their teachers told them the same thing many times over. They gave them examples of soldiers who died in combat, they quoted the Koran that says, "Do not say of those who are killed in God's service that they are dead! No! ... They are alive...." (Sura II, verse 154). They ended up believing what had been repeated to them thousands of times. But they are very wicked. They make people die so that they themselves can get to heaven! It's all lies. But why do their leaders tell them all this? Because they're making war on people who do not think the way they do. They do not love life, so they are ready to sacrifice their own provided they take with them as many dead people as possible. They are terrorists. Daddy, what does "terrorist" mean? In the word "terrorist" you find the word "terror," that is, a very great fear, a dread, something that makes you tremble and panic. It's horrible. I don't understand why people who want to go to heaven don't go there by themselves. Why do they kill and terrify the people they don't kill? I don't know, child. I'm like you, I can't understand how young people who are educated, who have been around in the world, and who have enjoyed the freedom and comfort of America, decide one day to commit mass murder that takes their own lives as well. They do this in the name of Islam. They are doing harm to their own families, to Islam, and to Muslims. It is not their religion that backs them up, for no religion urges the killing of innocent people, and Islam means "submission to peace," not "kill innocent people." So it is a madness that neither you nor I can understand. When you were a child, did you know that you were a Muslim? Yes. I was born in a house where I always saw my mother and father saying their prayers. And you? I prayed too, but I was lazy, especially in winter when we had to get up early and to wash up in ice-cold water. Because, before any prayer, you have to wash up-that is called ablutions. So you didn't wash up? Oh yes, I did, but my father noticed that I did it quickly and superficially and that I didn't like ice-cold water. What did he say? One day he called us together, my brother and me, and said this: "My sons, you were born into Islam, and you must obey your parents and God. In principle, you should do the five daily prayers and you should keep the fast of Ramadan. In Islam there is no forcing. No one has the right to force you to do your prayers, neither God nor your father. As the proverb says, On the final Judgment Day, each sheep will be hung by its own hoof. So you are free, I leave you to think about it. The main thing is not to steal, not to lie, not to hit the weak and the sick, not to deceive, not to make he who has nothing feel ashamed, not to mistreat your parents, and above all not to commit injustices. So, my sons, there you have it and the rest is up to you. I have done my duty. It's up to you to be worthy sons ." And then what happened? I kissed his hand the way I did every morning, and I felt free. I understood that day that I could be a Muslim without practicing the rules and laws of Islam in a disciplined way. I also remember what the principal of the Koranic school told us: "God is merciful!" He repeated, "Praise God the all-merciful"-in other words, God pardons. But tell me, do you do your prayers or not? That's a question that shouldn't be asked. We shouldn't answer that kind of question because it involves the person's freedom. If I pray, that's my business alone. If I pray, it isn't to show people that I am a good Muslim. Some people go to the mosque to be seen, others because they are sincerely carrying out their duties as believers. Daddy, I'm afraid. I can't sleep. Don't worry. I heard there'll be a war. What war? I don't know. Even at school, they told us to pay attention: if we see a bag left in a corner, we should call the teacher. I don't know, I'm afraid. Don't worry, life is good despite everything! Excerpted from Islam Explained by TAHAR BEN JELLOUN Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.